I took a trip down to Nabatiyeh yesterday with a Shia friend of mine to observe the Ashura commemoration.
It was, at first, truly fascinating. But as the ritual wore on, it transformed into spectacle. The misery and mourning associated with the tragedy of Imam Hussein was, for me, lost in the performance.
Certainly, it is only the sufferer who can truly identify with the ritual. But as a public expression of collective grief, I found the representational force of the event weakened by, at certain points, obvious visual displays of machismo, the breakdown of several people into seizures and the provocative enticement of picture-taking. The more blood you poured, the more likely you were to have your picture taken – – and many of the participants seemed very aware of this. On the bus back from Nabatiyeh, for instance, some of the boys passed around Polaroid photos of their blood-stained friends from the event. I, of course, took pictures and thus contributed to this element of the spectacle.
The character of the mourning ritual has changed over time, and not all Shias participate in the bloodletting. But I’m with Hezbollah on this one: the practice of the day could be put to better use – in blood donation banks.